March 2014

A New Beginning

March 19, 2014 10:35

About a year ago, I wrote about the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Rehearsal, in which our conductor announced his impending retirement. There were other things that went wrong in that rehearsal--the flat tire, my broken bow--but those got fixed or replaced relatively quickly and the incidents faded from memory. My new bow, a significant upgrade from my old one, now feels like I've had it forever. I don't even notice it anymore, in a good way.

But the conductor search was a different story. It started last summer, with collection of resumes and interviews. The Board of Directors, concerned about potential effects on morale of both players and audience, decided against a long, drawn-out conductor search lasting an entire season or more. Instead, our retiring conductor would conduct one last concert in the fall, with Dvorak's 8th symphony on the program. That rehearsal cycle would be used to interview candidates and select a new conductor for the Family Concert at the end of February. So, by the opening of the 2013-14 season, the field had been narrowed down to 3 finalists, each of whom was invited to conduct one rehearsal for the Fall Concert.

I was not on the selection committee, although in another time and place I might have liked to be. With getting started in my two new part-time jobs (one of them a start-up) I had too much on my plate outside of music to add another commitment. There was always a lot of chatter about the subject before and after rehearsal and during the breaks. "What are we going to do?" "We are going to miss Walter so much." Although the orchestra has been around since 1933, and has had several esteemed conductors in its time, virtually everyone in the current orchestra, myself included, had only played under Walter. He was there 33 years. When he first took the job, he even had hair.

As an interested observer, concertmaster, and member of the board, I was very impressed with the efficiency and professionalism that the committee exhibited in interviewing the candidates. There was some soul-searching about what kind of group we wanted to be. When we started, back in 1933, we were a community, volunteer, non-audition group of amateurs. We had a service mission, too: the late long-term concertmaster, Phyllis, had led chamber groups that went into schools. The orchestra held benefit concerts for the troops during World War II. And the feeling was quite strong now, too: that identity and mission of volunteer community service would not change. This is who we are, and we need a conductor who believes in that too.

The committee chose three very worthy conductor finalists, two men and one woman, any one of whom I would have been happy to play under. The rehearsals with the candidates were a delight, each with some new way to look at the music we'd been rehearsing, each night the orchestra clearly sounding better at the end of the rehearsal than it had at the beginning. At that point, I found myself glad not to have been on the selection committee after all. There had been a little chatter about the gender of the candidates. I had heard, privately, both opposition to and support for the general idea of a woman conductor. I personally was warm to the idea, especially after reading this New York Times article about the ongoing struggles of women in the conducting world.

What I said aloud, and believed, was, "we want the best candidate, regardless of gender." I thought about how representation of women and ethnic minorities in symphony orchestras had improved greatly since auditions started being held behind screens. But you can't audition a conductor behind a screen. I dutifully filled out the questionnaire that all the orchestra members had to fill out after each candidate's rehearsal, relieved that I didn't have to be the one making the choice.

In the end, however, it was a straightforward, unanimous decision. After considering all the factors, experiences, interviews, questionnaires, the committee unanimously recommended, and the Board unanimously approved, our new conductor, Joan Landry, to be the orchestra's new Music Director.

Our first concert under her leadership was last month, February 23. The local paper, the Arlington Advocate, did a feature on the concert ("Music From Around the Globe") and a nice interview with Maestro Landry: "Creating a Sweet Symphonic Sound" by Eileen Kennedy.

Here's to the next 33 years!

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